jump to navigation

Colorado has a Wyoming: Hiking the San Juans 19 September 2011

Posted by magicdufflepud in Colorado, Travel.
Tags: , , , , , ,
add a comment

Everyone in Denver wishes he’d spent some time in the San Juans. Just talk to anyone in the hiking community around here and the story’s the same, “Oh yeah, I’ve been meaning to get down there for ages. Just never had the chance.” At six hours in drive time alone from the Front Range, even the nearest peaks aren’t very doable in a weekend. And the 14ers that draw the most folks require at least a day-long hike beyond the trailhead. The rest of the range is similarly remote.

Still, this being Colorado, when I made the trip on a Labor Day weekend, I expected to run into a bunch of other hikers who’d finally received the opportunity to spend some extra time in southwestern Colorado. Except they never materialized. The town of Creede, last stop before the Rio Grande Reservoir and points deeper into the range, bustled with Texans getting into and out of their trucks. I also ran into a costumed bachelorette party which, curiously, included the bachelor too. Stranger things have happened.
Creede’s a curious town, though. Its rise and fall follow the standard Colorado mining arc, but no ski area has resuscitated its fortunes, leaving me to wonder what exactly happens to a mountain town of 400 during the winter. So I asked the girl making a burrito at the cafe.

“Well, there’s pond hockey.”

“No, I mean what do you folks do when the tourists aren’t around?”

“Oh, well, this is a good place to be if you like spending time with your friends and drinking beer.”

“Those are good things.”

“Then maybe you’d like Creede during the winter.”

But this was a post about the San Juans.

I wandered in on my own on a Saturday morning with plans to visit a formation called “The Window” and the less descriptively named Ute Basin. You’d do well to make the same trip. The whole area lies within the Weminuche Wilderness, a protected tract of nearly 500,000 acres that covers Colorado’s most remote and jagged peaks: the Needles range, the Grenadiers, Chicago Basin.

The hike in follows the Los Pinos River, which got me to thinking that Pinos Altos would be a good name for a mountain cabin. Hiking alone, that sort of thing gets stuck in your head. Pinos Altos. A one-room cabin with a wood burning stove, maybe some pelts of varmints hanging from the rafters. The smell of wood smoke.  Pinos Altos would exist in a state of perpetual winter, where the snow was always falling, the fire was always burning, and we were always just returning from a long day of something difficult and rewarding. You spend a few miles thinking about that when you hike alone.

Eventually the trail turned toward the Window itself, leaving the Pinos River behind and below, its meadows receding around the bend. I’d met one man earlier, returning from a solo hike to the summit of the Rio Grande Pyramid. “Trail goes up that way for a couple miles,” he said, “Then you’ll hit a blow down, and if you start thinking, ‘This is steep,’ it is steep, and you should go back around. There’s a cairn.” And we continued.

The Window comes out of nowhere. You see the Pyramid, rising above most everything else, then its arm extending south. But there’s this chunk out of it, plain as day, and that’s the window. Evidently, the whole thing’s volcanic, a bunch of breccia that doesn’t get anyone except geologists excited, and as volcanic rock tends to do, it fell apart. I learned from a retiree the next morning–he ran into me as I was striking camp–that the Spanish used to use the Window as a guide post of

sorts as they smuggled gold out of the San Juans. Moved tons and tons of it, evidently, though some partnership with the Utes. He’d read about it in a book titled “The Window” in Spanish, which he suggested I read if I could remember the word for window. Luckily, Google Translate can.

As you might imagine, the Window is suitably spectacular. The view is a postcard from Wyoming. With the addition of a glacier or two the Needles could pass for the Winds, and it all unfolds before you without any indication of a human presence. The whole of the San Juans surrounds the Window and from every angle the mountains stack up on one another until they disappear beyond the horizon.

This leads me to believe that the San Juans could in fact pass for Wyoming. Nowhere else in Colorado feels so high and so lonesome. Every valley ought to have a town, but look, and a braided river winds its way through a meadow, perhaps on its way to Los Pinos. If I were the Spanish, I’m not sure why I’d ever smuggle anything out of this place—better to sit there and admire it, alone preferably, but good company could work too.

Invariably, a twinge of sadness accompanies a departure from a high point like The Window. The trail descends, the views disappearing along the way. But this trail holds more in store, and as two hikers told me on Ute Pass, it would only get better.

It did.


Another saddle and more views down a web of drainages. Where could they lead? Then along another ridge staring into the Needles. A thousand lakes, it seemed, or at least a few. These were the winds all over again. A trail, trees, lakes, the rolling expanse. Here was Colorado before the mining booms and busts, before Creede, before even the Spanish and the Utes and all that gold.

Past Ute Lake, then Twin Lakes, it had to end. The Continental Divide Trail—the unbroken ribbon from Mexico to Canada—continued north, but my route carried me back to the reservoir, and my waiting car. The hunters camped at Twin Lakes never called out a greeting, and no one else appeared along the trail to greet.

An evening in a meadow, then a frosty sunrise. The hike out through Aspens. A family of stoats and more thoughts about Pinos Altos.

I’m not sure where all the thoughts go when you hike alone, spending that time with yourself. To be in your head that long, it should drive a person crazy, but it never does. It can’t. Too many mountains wait out there.


Knowing When to Stop 10 July 2011

Posted by magicdufflepud in Cycling, Random.
Tags: , , , ,
1 comment so far

You were going to get a post about cycling St. Vrain Canyon today, but now you’re not. ‘Cuz I didn’t do it. Instead, C and I turned around just beyond Lyons, stopped for some ice cream, then headed home. Sometimes you just have to know when to call it a day.

Last year, around this time, I set out for a Sunday afternoon ride in Deer Creek Canyon. As a Colorado newbie, I’d not yet learned that afternoon anything in the mountains generally spells doom, but you know, there’s only one way to get experience. And it’s not by having people tell you in advance, “Don’t do that, Andy. That’d be stupid.” Getting experience requires first-hand stupidity.

So anyway.

I rode… I’m not sure… 15 or so miles west and a couple thousand feet up toward Conifer under skies you might charitably characterize as “ominous.” After taking a wrong turn and visiting Tiny Town, a place I suggest you avoid, I evaluated the gathering clouds chose returning to the car over figuring out the right path. Even the kids at Tiny Town looked more interested in finding shelter than in riding the toot-tooting tiny trains. Maybe children have a sense of these things. Or maybe children like riding tiny trains about as much as adults do. Whatever the case, rain was on the way.

It fell in torrents as the descent back to the car begin. The temperature fell. The rain never let up. A motorcyclist went by. The rain kept falling. And the temperature, which had hovered unpleasantly around 90 for most of the afternoon, had dropped to the low sixties. To be truly dangerous at a standstill would have required colder temperatures still, but I wanted to get back to a dry car and was riding as fast as I considered safe. When my teeth started chattering, the cold still didn’t seem that bad. But then, as it grew harder and harder to maintain control against growing shivers, I began to realize the danger lay more in falling body temperature than in a close encounter with any car.

That I’m still here of course indicates that nothing truly terrible took place. An hour and a half in a hot shower did away with the the chills, and even if things had progressed beyond safety out there in Deer Creek Canyon, it’s a popular enough location that someone would have carted me off to a doctor.

But in Colorado, situations can sour much farther from help. And in a culture that celebrates goals achieved outdoors more so than anything done in the office, we push ourselves into dangerous territory. Too often, it seems, the late start has turned into a trip that’s pushing the afternoon storm hours, and even though summit may only require another 500 feet, or the pass might lie just beyond the next switchback, you know the right call: turn back. When the storm cloud that used to be sitting pretty three counties away pile up on the ridge throwing hail and lightning so close you’ll call it “hell on earth” in stories to your grand kids, the choice will no longer be yours. Too far above treeline when the storm rolls in and only chance determines whether you’ll return.

You knew all that, yet it’s worth repeating. Always worth repeating. We turned back today because a wet ride sounded pretty miserable, and some ice cream struck us as an okay consolation, but the same principles apply even when the stakes are higher. So put away the ego that assesses the reward, and pull out the logical mind that assesses the reality. Know when to stop.

Hiking a 14er 7 September 2010

Posted by magicdufflepud in Uncategorized.
Tags: , , , , , ,
add a comment

Moving to a new state is typically an easy affair, a matter of finding a place to live, signing the appropriate tax documents and figuring out where to buy full-strength beer. Not so for would-be Coloradans. Not only must they uncover the sinister deception that is 3.2% grocery-store beer, but a forming a covenant with the state also entails certain obligations beyond the immediately evident.   The list runs long, so I’ll provide some essential samples: you must make plans to buy a Subaru, you must make conversation the moment you notice a meteorological event involving water (e.g. “Say, it’s awfully humid!” or “Is that… rain?”), and you must climb a fourteener.

The first two don’t take much effort, but the third, well, that already assumes an understanding of the task. Not a sure thing. I mean, what’s a fourteener? Some kind of gun? One of 14 peaks discovered by a roving band of vigilantes? I wish. In reality, though, a fourteener is any of the 53 peaks in Colorado rising higher than 14,000 feet. Some of them only nose into the designation by a couple feet; some slip through as a technicality, another bump connected to a taller lump; but the tallest of them scrape the sky, reaching heights above all but a handful of mountains in the lower 48. No other state but Alaska–and it never counts in these sorts of contests–can lay claim to so much acreage north of the 14,000-foot mark.

So, as you might imagine, 14ers hold a special place in Coloradans’ hearts. Too special a place. Any Monday at a Colorado workplace, I gather, involves a discussion of the climbs attempted and completed. Commiseration follows the failures. We have all been turned back at one point or another. But rarely does the conversation turn to hike without at summit at its beginning, middle or end. What’s the point? No sense of achievement, evidently. Climbing above the vaunted 14,000-foot barrier takes sterner stuff than a pair of legs and a backpack. It takes… willpower?

I don’t know.

My own experience with Missouri Mountain the other day was a pleasant one: several miles of hiking, most of them above treeline, and a view from the summit that peered across a vast portion of the state. And even our failed attempt climb Huron Peak earlier that morning came to a halt in a basin fit for postcard photography. Call it a failure if you will, but that assumes reaching the summit would count as a success.  With all the information out there on how to climb such mountains, success by that definition seems mostly a matter of time and desire. To summit a 14er is to keep walking, scrambling and climbing where some other folks might have stopped. To be sure, a few hikers die each year attempting one mountain or the other, and some peaks involve significant dangers, but you can read your way around most if not all of them.

It can’t be about the challenge, then. So many other climbs exist to test Coloradans’ skills that the man vs. nature dynamic fails to explains the allure of these mountains. Instead, it must come down to a man vs. man test of dedication, a competition of commitment to stand on top of Very Tall Things. The 14er craze has bred a community, a culture even, that insists on calculating and comparing. It has insisted on and garnered a relevance unrelated to hiking in general. Call it “achievement hiking.” I’ll climb my mountains, you climb yours, and we’ll compare notes; our shared interest in 14ers gives us something to talk about.

But if it’s okay with you, I’ll concede this contest. Climb your mountains and stand within arm’s reach of the heavens, and I’ll explore the backcountry, the barely touched wilds the summiting crowds have ignored. I will take the chance moose or beaver over another beaten ridge-line trail, the chance to see no one at all over the certainty of a summit logbook. When every meter of these wilderness trails has been photographed, and when every possible misstep has been cataloged, then maybe I’ll turn my back on what was once wild. For now, though, you’ll find me there in the lonesome, somewhere below 14,000 feet.

Live Near Mountains 29 June 2010

Posted by magicdufflepud in Uncategorized.
Tags: , , , , , , , , ,
1 comment so far

Wheeee!

One of the things to like about Denver is its proximity to the mountains. In fact, absent the mountains, this city would have wasted away long ago like another Leadville (which, of course had the mountains and still failed, but whatever). Poor Leadville. It deserved so much more. Denver continues to grow, drawing more and more of the “active lifestyle” crowd that bikes to work and drives Subarus filled with Labrador Retrievers and climbing gear and PBR on weekends.

This, I gather, is how the state’s population maintains its 19.1% obesity rate (cool interactive map if you follow the link), not only the lowest figure in the nation, but the only one to edge in under the 20% mark. Relatively speaking, Coloradans are a thin lot, although this being America and not Malawi, it’s I-eat-bunches-and-work-out-bunches thin, not I-can’t-find-food thin. This is best considered when buying a calorie-free cola for $1.53, about the cost of killing ring worm in an African child. But then again, African children are very far away.

At any rate, I came to Colorado so that I too could burn excess calories for pleasure, flouting all evolutionary expectations in favor of sledding down a snow-packed slope on a Therm-A-Rest on June 27th. Although it’s possible that women desire an expert Therm-A-Rest sledder, in which case I’m still shackled by all that genetic propagation stuff. You are, too, you know. Think about that next time you stand up straighter when an attractive woman wanders into the room. Except, of course, you aren’t quite as cool as the bird of paradise in Planet Earth and Richard Attenborough doesn’t narrate your life.

At any rate, I’d been meaning to talk about the Indian Peaks Wilderness, possibly the closest federally-designated wildness to the Denver area. Struck by a desire to wander around in the woods and stand on top of very tall things, we went there this weekend. So did a homeless man who tied up two hikers at gunpoint and set the Nederland police on red alert. But we missed him. Maybe next time. From the news reports, the offender tied the couple to two trees and wandered away. And evidently he did a bad job it of since the man managed to free himself and run back to town as the assailant did who-knows-what. Total injuries for the event amounted to a couple rope burns and a minor laceration–the fleeing man tripped over a log.

This is why people come to Colorado. Even our criminals would rather wander around in the woods than inflict any real pain. By contrast, folks in Chicago kill each other at a rate that would reel us in from Iraq and Afghanistan right quick. But now that handguns are legal… less death?

So it’s become clear that I don’t really have anything new to say about the Indian Peaks Wilderness, and if you were looking for information about it, I’d try SummitPost.org instead, a much better resource than I’ll ever be. If you noticed, though, I’ve changed the name of this blog to Colorado:Wandered to better reflect the new content. I’ve decided to focus on the things that make Colorado an interesting place to live, with particular relevance to twenty-somethings who enjoy the possibility of moving here. The mountains hold an obvious appeal but there remains more to discuss. My 9-5 job only permits so much leisure, but it’s possible to take in enough to write twice a week.

I’ll try to avoid the humdrum. Check back for novelty.

Photos!